Huckleberry Finn has been censored. What does it mean for desis?

Yes, it is true. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has been censored. According to the BBC:

A new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is causing controversy because of the removal of a racially offensive word.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben says the use of the word “nigger” had prompted many US schools to stop teaching the classic.

In his edition, Professor Gribben replaces the word with “slave” and also changes “injun” to “Indian”.

First, there is one thing I need to get out of the way. I hate the “n-word.” I’ve never used it in my life. The only reason I have it here is to quote a valid news-story from a valid news organization. Hell, one of the reasons I give for disliking rap is the incessant use of the word, though the truth is I just don’t like the sound of it. I’ll admit I don’t mind when Richard Pryor says it. I laugh when David Chappelle does. But only black people can  make it funny.

Now, that I’ve gotten the mandatory disclaimer out of the way, I feel better.

I’ve never actually read Huckleberry Finn. I’m not sure too many other people from India have either. Of course, we all claim to have read it along with David Copperfield, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and The Swiss Family Robinson. What most of us have read are condensed pocket books of these tales with large-type on one side of the page and illustrations on the other. I’ve never heard any desi ever complain about those modifications. I never complained about the atrocious comic books versions of the classics either.

So, in this case I am somewhat sympathetic with the publisher who made the change and the teacher who requested it. It is about choice, and as long as the original uncensored version is available to anyone in that class, I am fine. The problem arises when you think of this not in isolation, but in the increasing trend toward revisionism. When changing a name makes it so that nothing ever happened.

I’m ashamed to admit that I cheer the Washington Redskins (not ashamed because of the name, but because they play lousy football). Should the name be changed to Washington Native Americans and again when something else becomes politically-correct? Maybe. But if you’re going to do that, please change the name of the Cleveland Browns baseball team. They suck too.

A few years ago, it was politically correct to call Native Americans, American Indians who were, of course, different from Indian Americans. But then some slowpoke realized it was confusing. As far as I know, after the change to Huckleberry Finn, we will still be Indians, and not everyone will have to pronounce it “in-dee-yun” with an audible “d” either. I am curious if it will still be acceptable for Indian to be pronounced “engine,” but offensive to write it out.

My point is that there is a lot of gray area (unless gray area is being ageist, in which case I apologize).

Personally, I’ll draw the line when we start revising our own literature, culture, and films to scrub the references which that we find offensive.

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4 thoughts on “Huckleberry Finn has been censored. What does it mean for desis?

  1. I like the point you have made about revisionism. But I find I’m unable to take definitive sides on it. For eg. I don’t agree with the changing of city names from Bombay to Mumbai or from Madras to Chennai simply as a means to shake off bad colonial memories. But changing names is not going to do that. Nor should it. Its made us what we are as a nation today.

    But on the other hand, I do support when names used to describe communities are changed, maybe to restore dignity. For eg, from Harijans to Dalits. Dalits do not like the singling out for attention as ‘God’s children’ and prefer being called ‘The oppressed’ as it does not sugar coat the treatment received from society.

    Maybe I’ll just continue sitting on the fence and take it on a case by case basis.

    • I had a really hard time writing this post for similar reasons. And in an effort to make it nuanced, I’ve probably made it insipid.

      Re: Harijan, I agree that it is condescending. But that label too didn’t start to stick until Gandhi made it popular.

      Thanks for reading and for your thought-provoking comment. 🙂

  2. I agree to your points about revisionism of classics. Infact any book whether classic or not is like a portal or time machine to the time when it was written. We read classics to know bout those times. So censoring classics feels quite land to me. Another nice post as expected from you!

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